Response to The Chasm of Disbelief

The following is an incredibly thoughtful response written by Carter Gilles to my post The Chasm of Disbelief. I am particularly grateful to him for pointing out the important role that doing the arts, participating in the arts, can play in overcoming disbelief. Once again, thanks Carter!

Doug Borwick

Carter Gilles

The idea that ‘the arts are not valuable’ is not simply a statement in isolation but the conclusion from a larger point of view. The belief that the arts don’t matter is not simply words uttered but a practice of not seeing them as mattering. Among the things that surround the idea that the arts don’t matter is the curious perception that we have nothing to do with them. The quote you share from Jonathan Katz nails it:

This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

It’s not just that the arts don’t matter but that the arts are by other people and for other people. And part of this assumption rests on the observation that the things that happen in the arts are themselves alien to us. It is the view that what happens on a stage is fundamentally different from what happens on the radio, what is displayed in museums is fundamentally different from what happens in one’s home. It is the feeling that whatever we ourselves do, it has nothing to do with the arts.

But the interesting thing is that no one got to be this alien sort of artist from an alien birth. Everyone who makes a profession of the arts started out as a kid with crayons and paint, with lumps of clay and sandboxes filled with toys. We did all those things with little more than some raw materials and a bounty of imagination. Everyone started as an artist because this is what humans do. [Emphasis by Doug Borwick]

The thing we are denying when we say “the arts don’t matter” is that they matter to us. The idea that they don’t matter to us depends on the impression that they have no place in our lives. And the perception that they are somehow separate from us depends on the hallucination that we ourselves were never engaged in art. 

This is not so much a matter of belief as of forgetting. Somehow we have forgotten that art DID matter to us, that we ourselves were artists, and that we too, even now, have the capacity for creativity and expression. It may just need dusting off, but we are not untouched by it.

And if it is true that part of what we are dealing with is a matter of forgetting, then this can be addressed in a way that disbelief can’t be. 

Beliefs are part of a larger structure, and you cannot just peel one off the surface without severing the connections it has in other beliefs and practices. Replacing disbelief with belief is not a straightforward surgery. Belief is not the tool to overcome disbelief. But the idea that we can remind someone of what they already knew is a different task. The best way to remember something is to do it oneself. Like riding a bike. [Emphasis by Doug Borwick] The Gordian Knot of disbelief is cut through with simple acts of remembering.

If you forget you know how to ride a bike you won’t believe you can. Is that chasm of disbelief something real? It may take a few tries, but if you have learned to ride a bike and simply forgotten it disbelief is a sort of mischief we perpetrate on ourselves. A self sabotage.

We don’t earn our disbelief merely through neglect. Some things are worth disbelieving and we have valid reasons for doing so. To have forgotten something and for that reason alone disbelieve it is itself a prodigious leap into mythology and illogic. It sets up misremembering as the standard of veracity, dismantles proof, and invites relativism.

There are things that are true whether we believe them or not. Disbelief in the wrong hands makes a mockery of the truth. The arts matter, despite the words of justification for tearing them down. It is not a condition of our disbelief alone that prevents us from seeing this.

Doomed to Fail

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are–rightly and way too belatedly–important topics in the nonprofit arts world right now. I heartily applaud the focus.

However . . . I worry about the way the topics are being approached. If an arts organization attempts to incorporate DEI awareness and efforts without a deep, mission-level commitment to being of the community; to forming mutually beneficial, lasting relationships with new communities; to seeing its work as being a resource for improving lives, then there is no foundation upon which to build. There is also a real danger that the motivations behind some of the desire for DEI in the arts is to feel better about ourselves. As I wrote some time ago, pursuit of diversity for its own sake is highly self-serving. (The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity) This is even more true for the suite of work we refer to in DEI.

If the focus of the organization continues to be on the art rather than the arts’ connection with and impact upon people, DEI work will be at best surface deep and fleeting and at worst will, as the result of failures, deepen the rifts between the arts and the communities with which they are attempting to develop relationships.

Without significant commitment to substantive community engagement (which is rooted in the group of commitments I listed in the above), DEI efforts will probably not bear a great deal of fruit. It may be a bit of hyperbole to say they’re “doomed to fail.” It also may not.

There is no question that community engagement and DEI work are not the same thing. But they are often closely related when engaging with communities that have little or no connection with the arts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital to the future of the arts. The commitment to community that community engagement requires (along with the mindset and skills to go with it) is an essential foundation upon which to build efforts in DEI.




Some rights reserved by Bill Selak

Mission Creep??!!

A colleague recently shared that when they advocate for community engagement in their organization they get pushback about “mission creep.” Mission creep??!! If connecting the arts with communities is not an arts organization’s mission, what is it?! 

I know, I know. There is an assumption (conscious or otherwise) on some people’s part that arts organizations owe their allegiance to the art they present. I will spare long-time readers (and myself) a revisit to my “Arts for Arts Sake” rants. (For any newbies with the stomach for it, here’s one entry: Art for Art’s Sake Revisited.) And, certainly, the mission creep argument is an old one with which I am well familiar.

But really, how many of us would be in this business if we did not believe that the arts are valuable not just to us but to many/most/all people? And if we believe that, should it not be one of our primary callings to connect as many as possible with the art we know to be valuable? Community engagement (or if you bristle at that term, simply think “connecting people with the arts”) is the means to that end.

And on a practical level, of course, the long-term viability of arts organizations demands significantly increasing our reach, the percentage of people who value and take advantage of what we offer.

If connecting people with the arts represents “mission creep” for your organization, your organization needs to seriously re-examine it’s mission.




Some rights reserved by Thomas Hawk

Donor Myopia

In Grass Is Greener? I recounted discoveries about arts organizations with adequate or more-than-adequate government funding. They face problems that might surprise those of us working in the arts in the U.S. And more to the point of this post, my colleagues in South America and Australia were envious of the ability we have to tap private money–individuals, corporations, and foundations.

In that earlier post I promised a consideration of the “down sides” of our private-funding model. The most obvious issue is the lack of dependable support so that every arts organization spends much of its time–as do politicians for similar reasons–pounding the pavement looking for dollars. In an ideal world the resources spent in pursuit of operating funds could be so much better employed in connecting the arts with communities.

But an even bigger problem with our model is how it diverts arts organizations from paying attention to their communities. The history of support that our nonprofit arts infrastructure replicates is the European patronage system. The focus of artists and those presenting the arts was, inevitably, on those who provided the funds to make it happen.

From the beginning of the establishment of arts organizations in the U.S., with virtually no public money flowing in, they have, understandably, been most concerned with the interests of those who fund the enterprise. This narrowness of attention, this “donor myopia” has created a system in which the broader population can be very nearly unseen. We observe this today in the makeup of boards of directors, content (repertoire) selection, and messaging. Our eyes are on the relatively small number of people who have the money to keep operations going.

As the large- (and medium-) donor business model is breaking down the lack of experience in working with communities is going to be a serious impediment to long-term viability. It is time, actually way past time, to develop “chops” in being part of the fabric of the communities in which we work.




Some rights reserved by National Eye Institute

The Chasm of Disbelief

Think you (or your organization) don’t understand the people you are trying to reach? If you are talking about people other than your current attendees/donors and their peers, you are 100% correct; and they understand you even less. (And if you don’t think you don’t understand you are probably deluding yourself.)

There is, between the general public and those of us on the “inside” of the nonprofit arts industry, a gap in perception that I think is insufficiently understood by stakeholders in the arts. Simply put, we are powerfully aware of the incredible value of the arts. The rest of the world is not. This gap makes communication extremely difficult.

The onus for breaking the logjam is on us. Who else has the motivation to try? But we can’t do so if we don’t recognize it. And even more daunting, the disconnect is deeply systemic. It is not a “simple” matter of presenting arguments about the wonderfulness of the arts. In spite of all the research and the myriad of studies demonstrating the power of the arts, people are not convinced. This always confused me until I interviewed Jonathan Katz, then CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, for my first book (Building Communities, Not Audiences). He framed things in a way that set me back on my heels.

Neither professionals [or community leaders] in the relevant disciplines nor the general public put sufficient stock in . . . studies to alter policy. This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

In other words, people do not believe the stories or the studies because they don’t believe they can be true. For many, the arts are so inconsequential, so void of impact on their own lives, any proof of their power is literally unbelievable.

So whether you are trying to convince people of the merit of the arts or the value of your organization or you are simply trying to get them to attend your events, there is a profound chasm of disbelief to be overcome. The way across this divide is not by words. It is action alone that will work. Being perceived as valuable must be earned by doing things that make us so. If we have to tell people we are valuable, we’re not to them.




Some rights reserved by zrim